It Really Does Get Better

Today, my firstborn, my oldest son, turned fourteen years old.

Just to refresh your memory, he used to look like this:

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SO squishy.

Now, he looks like this:

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SO many Nike products in one picture.

That’s kind of wild, right? (Also, those are men’s size 11 shoes he’s wearing right there. I was absolutely unprepared for how quickly teenagers grow out of apparel. We had to buy him dress pants and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt for chorus this year and while everything fit fine for the fall concert, it was getting a little snug for the winter concert, which means, I can only assume, it will all be too small by the spring concert. Even the tie, probably.)

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I know everyone’s favorite thing to say to new parents is, “IT GETS BETTER!” Three words meant in the best possible way to buoy the spirit of beleaguered caretakers. This message is always delivered one of two ways: with much excitement and enthusiasm (by a parent whose kids slept through the night), or, with a tinge of regret and a deep sigh of resignation (by a parent whose kids STILL aren’t sleeping through the night).

The thing is, it really does get better. It’s amazing to look at pictures of Henry as a baby and realize how little we understood about the journey ahead. We still don’t really understand the journey ahead but our kids are all potty trained so somehow, that journey seems a little more agreeable than it did a decade ago.

Here’s a short list of everything that the kid in the second picture can do but that newborn in the first picture was totally incapable of doing because he was a baby:

  • Emptying the dishwasher.
  • Toasting his own bagel. Heating up his own frozen pizza. BAKING muffins like a real full-grown human!
  • BABYSITTING HIS YOUNGER SIBLINGS SO MAMA CAN RUN ERRANDS ALL BY HER LONE SELF.
  • Vomiting in a proper receptacle. (Great news for those parents out there of middle-of-the-night bedroom carpet pukers.)
  • Doing his own laundry (thanks middle school life skills class!).
  • Completing his homework with almost complete autonomy, tracking what needs to be done and when it’s due.
  • Soloing at every sports practice or birthday celebration or school activity. In fact, I don’t even think twice about anything other than a drop-off anymore because I’m pretty sure my attendance will only embarrass him anyway.
  • Packing his own luggage for trips and vacations. The kids may not always pack enough but they don’t pack enough all on their own which is really all I can ask for.
  • Owning a knowledge base to fix almost any IT issue that arises at the house.

When I asked Bob what he thinks is easier about having older kids, his response was, “They can fetch things.” Like, Bob’s reading glasses. Maybe an extra blanket if Bob has a chill. Or, for example, Bob’s medications. So, retrieving items for the elderly is apparently a checkmark in the teenager column for sure. Or, the encouragement we need to adopt a retriever of some sort.

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I recently started driving Henry to and from school each day since the middle school bus is the Wild Wild West of the adolescent years. I assumed I would loathe the inconvenience of the across town location and traffic navigating that driving him would require. I was super surprised to find myself enjoying the commute immensely. The dedicated time together has led to some interesting discussions on a rather wide range of topics that are not exclusively sports related! I find myself looking forward to the drive.

It’s precious time with a precious son who, at fourteen years of age, is such an enjoyable and interesting human.

Life since those newborn days has gotten easier. It’s gotten lovelier. It’s gotten more intense. It’s presented new challenges. But, it’s definitely gotten better.

Thirteen

As of 5:22 this morning, I am the parent of a teenager.

That went fast.

I keep a set of pictures in my wallet. They’re of my children. One wallet-sized picture of each of them from every school year. I’m not even really sure when or why I started keeping them like that. No one seems too interested in school pictures anymore. I casually asked Henry if he wanted a set of this year’s photos to trade with his friends and by his absolutely bewildered reaction, I’m assuming students no longer do this. Just another industry killed by millennials or Facebook, I’m guessing they’ll say. But, on a moment’s notice, I can make the march of time tangible by pulling out the thin stack of photographs from my wallet, laying them all in a row, and marveling at how my kids have changed through the years.

I can see how my bespectacled kindergartner has become a bespectacled middle schooler. How he still, begrudgingly, after all of these years, agrees to wear the one collared shirt he owns on picture day. How he looks the same and yet so very different. How I think I can get a glimpse of what he’ll look like when another eight years pass. How I sometimes feel like I only know him in the present and have completely forgotten how he was in the past.

At thirteen, Henry has become a kind, interesting, funny, sporty, and (somewhat consistently) respectful adolescent.

I’ve found myself over the past several months asking other moms who have parented teenagers what the journey is like. I’m afraid I ask questions of them like I would the big cats caretaker at the zoo – a mix of earnest curiosity and inherit fear. The answers I receive are frequently mixed. For every, “It’s not so bad,” there’s a, “No comment.” One parent will speak fondly of the time while another just looks off into the distance, a little battle-weary. I’m always left with the impression that the teenage years are something to survive rather than relish.

And, we have many, many years of survival ahead of us. During a particularly challenging parenting moment a few weeks ago, when the dust from the frustration and the anger was settling all around us, I looked at Bob and said, “We have a full DECADE of parenting teenagers ahead of us. We didn’t really think this through when we decided to have three of them, did we?”

It’s strange to be beginning this journey. It makes me feel old in a way that turning forty never did. I’m old enough to have a teenager! I still remember being a teenager. It all feels like the start of something but also the end of something. Fun and exciting but also destined for frustration and heartbreak. But, that could describe every stage of parenting.

I suppose teenagers are just a different kind of difficult.

Eight

Eight is probably my favorite of the little kid ages. Young enough to want a first-thing-in-the-morning hug but old enough to get themselves ready for school with little intervention. Young enough to still be tucked into bed with stuffed animals each night but old enough to procure their own snacks. Young enough to laugh uncontrollably at a fart joke but old enough to be completely rational about concepts that would send a toddler into a tantrum.

Charlie turned eight years old about a week ago.

Charlie, at eight years of age, has asked for a later bedtime. As it currently stands, I send all three of the kids packing at 8:00 each evening. By that time of night, I have been on the job for 14 hours straight and while I love my children dearly, I no longer wish to see or hear them. To their rooms they must go. Charlie’s quest for a later bedtime messes a bit with my timeline but he was adamant so we found a compromise. I explained that he still had to head to his room at 8:00 p.m. but could now stay awake until 8:30. Charlie considered this a victory. More of a moral victory for sure, since when I check on him each evening around 8:05 or so, he is always sound asleep.

Charlie, at eight years of age, is still petite in stature. He is wee for his age. Shorter than his peers but just sort of tiny all over. His arms and legs are like matchsticks, especially when compared to Millie, who is one solid mass of a kid. I have trouble picking her up anymore but not Charlie. Charlie I can still swing up in my arms with ease and he still wants to be picked up. I feel like Charlie is part rechargeable battery, gathering his energy by hugging others. Most mornings, when I swoop him up for a big hug, Charlie still does that thing that little ones do where they tuck their arms down at their side, pinned almost by your arms so they can lean into you, head on your shoulder and you can completely envelop them in a hug. It’s like a kid version of a trust fall and someday, when you ask me, I will tell you that it is one of the things I miss most about this age.

Charlie, at eight years of age, tries valiantly to hide his emotions. You can see the tough kid resolve when he gets injured or his siblings have wronged him or when something doesn’t go according to plan. For years, Bob and I wondered when Charlie, our high emotion middle child, would cross this bridge. When he would better understand complicated logistics and the nature of time and we longed for the day when deviations and impatience wouldn’t result in a complete meltdown. We’ve finally arrived there. But, Charlie still feels deeply. A couple of weeks ago, a nice man from a neighboring town came to our house to buy our bunk bed set. With Henry in his own room, I was eager for Charlie to have a traditional bed. One that made changing the bed sheets 100 percent easier. After we loaded the bunk beds into the buyer’s trailer, Bob and I went inside and found Charlie’s bedroom door shut. When we entered, we found Charlie sobbing at his desk. We hurriedly asked what was wrong and he tearfully explained, “You’re selling EVERYTHING that I love!” Charlie was upset but didn’t want us to know. Bob and I hid our relieved smiles and promptly went about extolling the graces of his New! Bigger! Better! bed.

Charlie, at eight years of age, is working hard at school. We abruptly switched Charlie to a different elementary school at the beginning of March and he managed the big change with aplomb. He is thriving there, working towards mastering the basics that seem to be so difficult for him to master. His new teacher convened a big meeting a couple of weeks after his arrival. The conference room where we met was filled with various school staff and advocates that all want Charlie to find success. When the assistant principal asked me if I had any insight to share on Charlie, I paused. I thought for a bit and then explained that, yes, school will probably never be a favorite of Charlie’s however, if any one of them around that table were hopelessly lost in the woods, Charlie could help them survive for three days, no problem. Charlie’s skill set lies elsewhere but he’s got a huge team of people at his school working to help him learn, figuring out what interests to tap that will finally make things click. I’m confident we’re on the right path.

Charlie found me busy on my laptop the other day. He asked what I was doing and I said, “Writing! It’s just a modern version of your typewriter, Charlie.”

He grinned and replied, “Well, I AM kind of old-fashioned.”

Yes, you are Charlie. My old soul outdoorsman is now eight years old.